One thing I believe to be important for pastors when entering into a new place is calling each of the people on the church roll, introducing oneself as the new pastor, and inviting them to church. This serves to undo the assumption that every parishioner knows when a new pastor has been called and arrived to serve their congregation, it begins the process of learning names, and establishes a relationship with those who are either inactive attendants or homebound. So within my first month, I made phone calls: getting lots of answering machines, a few conversations, and a couple “I left. I’m now at ______.” These initial phone calls helped in beginning to learn the people I had been called to serve, updating directorial information, amending church rolls, and inviting back to worship those who had left. A couple of people who had been absent from anywhere between months to years responded to my invitation and began attending again—finding new life in this place they consider holy, and among people they love dearly. Yet, despite my self-driven efforts, I continued to regularly get the unsolicited: “Pastor, YOU NEED TO get so-and-so back.” At first I took it as helpful direction toward those who I may have either had no record of or overlooked. With time, however, it became less helpful and was received as more of an unresolved grief that sought to shape my ministry around a single person’s feelings and expectations.
Some of those whom I reached out to—as you might imagine—affirmed their happiness and fulfillment within their new congregation. So, I was happy for them. In such cases, my honest and heartfelt response was—and always is: “Good. If it’s a good place for you, then that’s all that matters. If I can be of help anytime, don’t hesitate to give me a call.” I’m NOT in the “sheep stealing” business; there are still tons of people who are unchurched, meaning they have either never heard the good news of Jesus Christ or desperately need to feel the love of God through the church again. Why try to take from one church to fill another when there are so many people who have no church to call home. I respect if someone is happy elsewhere, meaning I have accepted it. There is little-to-nothing I can (nor should) do to convince someone who is happily attending somewhere else to leave that place and come back to this congregation. Frankly, to evangelize in such a manner seems counter to what Jesus calls us to participate in. The gospel is not good news of THIS PLACE, but instead, good news of the life-giving death and resurrection of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
How do we “accept gone” from those who have left, and turn our primary attention to those who remain outside of the walls of the church altogether? That specific person being gone from our congregation might feel like a death to us—like a member of our family is forever disconnected. “Accepting gone,” however, DOES NOT mean we could care less, we have stopped loving them, they are no longer welcome here, or they are somehow removed from the body of Christ and have loss God’s grace. In the Lutheran hermeneutic, we use the language of death and new life—understanding our entire life as participating in this cycle of dying and being resurrected. We believe that God makes us new daily as we die to the powers and bondage of sin and death and are raised wholly new people in the Crucified and Risen Christ—to live in love and serve all others. We receive new life each day, not by anything we can do for ourselves, but through the life-giving death and resurrection of Christ alone. When we “accept gone” it is part of death that leads to new life. This person who has left, has (in a sense) died to this place and hopefully found new life in (and NOT FROM) their new faith community. We are to let these people go (not trying to keep them here or bring them back against their will) so that they may be free to experience new life elsewhere. Likewise, there may be others who have encountered a “death” within other churches elsewhere, and may come here seeking new life. Those who come into our faith community—searching for and receiving new life, and contributing to the new life of this congregation—need our support as they begin calling this congregation home. In “accepting gone” we trust that Christ is always with those who have left—continually working new life in them—no matter where they have gone. To do so is not an easy task by any means or measure. Yet, only when we “accept gone,” can we be free from the pain of the past, begin looking ahead to the future, and live in the fullness of Jesus Christ with hopeful anticipation for the newness the Holy Spirit is working amongst us in this community of faith.